Monday, 15 August 2011

History of China Rap

22 years after Billy Joel, another song proves yet again that history is always easier to ingest when it comes with a catchy tune.

H/T: Michael

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Speaking to the Lowest Common Denominator

Why are specialists in so many fields always so eager to use arcane doctrine that no one outside their profession can understand? I suppose one obvious answer is job insurance. If being a lawyer means years of training in the use of Latin phrases, than its much easier to demand large sums for your services. But most researchers go about their work in the belief that it will have some impact on the larger world. If this is the case, than its obviously important to think about how you can reach the lowest common denominator of public understanding without loosing the gist of your message in the process.

I'm certainly not the first one to tackle the enigma of incomprehensible academic writing; Daniel Drezner has a post on the topic here. However, I would like to point one great example of how serious academic research has been packaged in an easy to understand format without much being lost in the process.

If you have been following Development Economics at all for the past few months, you have no doubt heard about Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, or J-PAL (for a good overview on Banerjee and Duflo's findings, read the teaser for their new book in FP).* This is an effort to use Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) to gather quantitative, or hard, evidence on which development projects just sound good and which actually work in practice. The RCT process (which has its origins in medical testing) requires implementing projects in some locations while not doing so in other "controls." At the end of the evaluation, the two sample pools are then compared to see what impact the project actually had. Obviously this approach has stirred up a lot of controversy, which is well covered in this great post at the now dormant Aid Watch blog.

Despite the critiques about RCTs, J-PAL has quickly become something of a media sensation. And when you look at their website, its no wonder why. While most academic websites are dry repositories of even drier academic papers, J-PAL has taken their findings and created a simple, clean webpage where the results of their various projects are presented in a way almost anyone can make sense of. No p-values or STATA output tables here, just easy to follow bar graphs on topics like improving school attendance, which make even cost benefit analysis seem interesting. And if you're worried that this "dumming down" of research results might somehow jeopardize centuries of accumulated practice, don't worry, the academic papers are still there too. One can only hope that this is the start of a trend that more academics (and governments) will start to pick up on.

If anyone knows of any other good examples of bridging the academic-public gap or has any thoughts on the subject, please let me know!

*Caveat: one of my good friends works on a J-PAL project.

Monday, 8 August 2011

The end of Malaysian Railways in Singapore

Happy National Day Singapore!

One of the more interesting recent happenings in the city-state (at least for this author) has been the closure of the southern most 26 kilometers of the Malayan Railways Limited (KTM) and the transfer of the land they sit on to the Singapore government.

Off into history.

Through one of those quirks of history which make being a student of history so much fun, after Singapore independence in 1965 the land occupied by the KTM tracks and the two stations at Bukit Timah and Tanjong Pagar remained under Malaysian sovereignty. Inevitably, the resulting issues from immigration check points and national pride led to decades of protracted negotiations over how to resolve this geographical anomaly. Last summer these talks finally reached their conclusion (and instantly became an important case study in international conflict resolution) and an agreement was reached to turn the properties over to Singapore in exchange for a Malaysian cut of the profits generated through their future sale.

Before and after next to Bukit Timah Station. This is one of
several short stretches of track that might be retained for

As soon as the closure was announced, questions arose about how the land would be used after the trains stopped running on July 1, 2011. As part of the agreement, Singapore agreed to dismantle the tracks and return the leftovers to Malaysia by December 31, and with typical Singaporean efficiency this process began almost immediately.

Piles of rails and concrete ties at Bukit Timah station
(taken 08/08/2011)

In the several weeks between the departure of the last train and the arrival of the first wrecking ball, something interesting happened. Many Singaporeans, who (let's face it) are not known for their love of outdoor activities,  accepted the government's invitation to walk along parts of the corridor and see a part of their country that not many had not seen before. At the same time, an aggressive initiative by local campaigners to save the "green corridor" began to gather steam. Perhaps most surprisingly, many high ranking government officials quickly jumped on the bandwagon and promised to preserve as much of the right-of-way as possible.

The bridge over Dunearn Road makes a great a photo shoot
for wannabe Harjuku Girls.

Both civil society and the government have created impressive web pages about the future of the KTM lands that are worth perusing. Interestingly, both seem to have much more in common than they differ. (For those of you who are interested in policy making in Singapore, take note of how the latter uses prior "rail to trail" projects in New York City and Paris to apparently legitimize the conversion in Singapore.)

The ability of Singaporeans to once again quickly mobilize and rise to the task of fighting for something they believe in, should serve as an important riposte to those who argue that in Singapore "civil society is nonexistent."

As an admitted rail buff, it's always painful for me to see any line shuttered. Since Tanjong Pagar was the terminus of my two and a half month long Gibraltar to Singapore rail odyssey two years ago, its conversion from living and breathing station to (hopefully) museum is especially poignant. 

Tanjong Pagar, July 2009

However I have to admit that with only 6-7 trains a day in each direction, the KTM line in Singapore was pretty under-utilized. If the future green corridor is able to help reunite future generations of Singaporean with their natural environment, and get a little bit of exercise in the process, that is hardly a bad thing.

On another note, trains are still a great way to travel around much of Southeast Asia. The Man in Seat Sixty-One remains the "go to" website for anyone planning a rail voyage there or anywhere else in the world. Safe travels!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Debate Over Government as Solution or Problem Continues

It has become commonplace to hear the assertion that countries like China and Singapore grow because of their governments while countries like the US and India grow in spite of it (I have heard both of these two gentlemen make the point, I'm not sure which came up with it first).

In this vein the NYT has just published a great story (H/T: Dustin) on the rise of the new city of Gurgaon in the New Delhi suburbs. Instead of just waiting for the notoriously slow moving Indian government to provide services, the new tenants have taken the initiative themselves:
It is 8 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, time for the shift change at Genpact, a descendant of G.E. and one of Gurgaon’s biggest outsourcing companies. Two long rows of white sport utility vehicles, vans and cars are waiting in the parking lot, yellow emergency lights flickering in the early darkness, as employees trickle out of call centers for their ride home. These contracted vehicles represent Genpact’s private fleet, a necessity given the absence of a public transportation system in Gurgaon. 
From computerized control rooms, Genpact employees manage 350 private drivers, who travel roughly 60,000 miles every day transporting 10,000 employees. Employees book daily online reservations and receive e-mail or text message “tickets” for their assigned car. In the parking lot, a large L.E.D. screen is posted with rolling lists of cars and their assigned passengers.
And the cars are only the beginning. Faced with regular power failures, Genpact has backup diesel generators capable of producing enough electricity to run the complex for five days (or enough electricity for about 2,000 Indian homes). It has a sewage treatment plant and a post office, which uses only private couriers, since the local postal service is understaffed and unreliable. It has a medical clinic, with a private ambulance, and more than 200 private security guards and five vehicles patrolling the region. It has A.T.M.’s, a cellphone kiosk, a cafeteria and a gym. 
“It is a fully finished small city,” said Naveen Puri, a Genpact administrator.
Self-sufficient buildings are obviously nothing new to anyone who has spent time in the developing world, or even in rural parts of the highly developed. What sets Gurgaon and its Indian cousins apart is their sheer scale. It is hard to think of anywhere else in the world where entire cities are being built by the corporate sector. Please do yourself a favor and read the whole article, it has got a lot of good information in it.

This post also caught me eye because it shows again how completely commentators both inside and outside of India have bought into the idea that business and government there are inherently at odds with each other. I can only really recall having seen one good counter to this way of thinking:
India is said to grow at night while its government sleeps. The quip, beloved of Indian businessmen, is often invoked to rubbish a corrupt and incompetent state and to praise a supposedly heroic entrepreneurial class. But there is something wrong with this picture. In many sectors, Indian entrepreneurs make money not in spite of government interference, but precisely through colluding with a state that provides the land, licences and rent-seeking opportunities on which they thrive.
I'm not sure how persuasive this argument is to readers in South Asia who have to deal with the still powerful remnants of the Permit Raj on a daily basis. However, I think at the very least it should serve as another reminder that it is always important to challenge the paradigms which do so much to determine how we see the world around us.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Laos: The Land In-Between

My 11 day jaunt through Laos is drawing to a close. Its been a very revealing trip. I have to confess I knew pretty much nothing about Laos before this trip. It is not a place you hear a lot about in the news and while my school has students from all over Asia, there haven't been any Laotian students that I'm aware of.

Thanks to King of the Hill, I knew that it was a small landlocked country between Vietnam and Thailand with a population of 4.7 million  (actually almost 7 million now).

I also knew that it was one of the five "technically" Communist countries left in the world (along with China, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam). And that it is not in the habit of holding free and fair elections to determine the leadership of the country. And that it was one of the poorer countries in ASEAN. But that was about it.

Having braced myself for a transition from relatively well off (by regional standards) Thailand to still poor Laos, I was pretty impressed by my initial observations in Laos. Electricity is available all the time, major roads are paved,  the customs officers at the border didn't ask for bribes, the police don't appear to harass the citizenry unnecessarily, the local currency is available and in good repair, etc. All small things I know, but when you've been to a few countries you start to look for little things that tell you how well the country is doing. And Laos, based on my scant observations, is at least doing some things right.

What most struck me is how Laos is caught between all of its neighbors. Most significantly, Laotians are very close to their Thai neighbors; I once heard that there are more ethnic Laotians in Thailand than in Laos itself. Laos spoken and written language is very close to Thai, and perhaps because of this most of the Laotians I saw watching TV had a Thai channel on. The majority of people in both countries also practice the same form of Buddhism (Theravada, Vietnam and all countries further to the north practice Mahayana). Finally, almost every food product I seemed to pick up was manufactured in Thailand. Aside from the omnipresent Beer Lao, nothing much else seems to get made in Laos. I seriously can't think of another country I have been in where even the Coca-Cola is imported. This reliance on outside imports was a source of irritation that I heard repeated several times: Thai goods had to imported, duty paid, then resold for less than the going rate in Thailand in order to satisfy more thrifty consumers in Laos, all creating razor thin margins for local entrepreneurs.

Laos' political connections with Vietnam have been strong ever since the Second Indochina War. While the US intervention in Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s is common knowledge, Washington's involvement in Laos was kept secret at the time, even while it carried out one of  the largest bombing campaigns in history. Nevertheless, the Communist-backed Pathet Lao eventually triumphed with the assistance of their Vietnamese allies and established the Lao People's Democratic Republic. This alliance has continued to the present day; officials in both countries dress in similar looking clothing and display Communist imagery, while at the same time urging their citizens to make as much money as possible in the free market. A large number of ethnic Vietnamese also live in eastern Laos, even halfway across the country near the Plain of Jars I started to notice more and more restaurants serving Phở style soup.

There are also notable connections with Laos' southern neighbor, Cambodia. Laos is home to Wat Phou, which is supposed to be one best preserved Khymer temples outside of Cambodia. My tour guide at the Plain of Jars mentioned that his brother went to college and worked in Phnom Penh, which was yet another unexpected reminder that the ASEAN countries are slowly tying themselves together in unexpected ways.

Finally, it is impossible to mention contemporary international relations in Asia without discussing the role of China. I actually can't say that I saw much in the way of Chinese influence during my trip. I saw a sign for a Chinese funded hydro-power project and there were plenty of Chinese restaurants. There was also the occasional Chery automobile and other manufactured good, but there was no obvious indication that Laos (southwestern Laos anyway) is being overwhelmed by Chinese imports.Of course this could begin to change rapidly if the new railway line between Kunming in southern China and Vientiane is completed. If properly built and utilized, this link could dramatically impact the economy of ASEAN's only landlocked country. Most of the Laotian roads I traveled on were paved and in decent repair, but they were by no means fast or high capacity.

Given all these diverse outside influences, the Laotian authorities have their work cut out for them if they are to maintain a unique national identity. At least they seem to recognize the presence of this challenge. The one Laotian TV channel I did see was constantly broadcasting local feel good news and demonstrations of the national government's competence. The government for its part seems to understand the importance of maintaining its legitimacy through action. Only time will tell if it is doing enough, fast enough.

The Thai/Laos border from the Thai side.
A good filled Thai truck crossing into Laos by ferry.
Old colonial era building along the main street in Luang Prabang.
The entire old town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage
Site in order to protect the historic buildings and the result is
something that every other historic town in Southeast Asia
should try to emulate.
Communist countries always have the best markets.
Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang. One of the most historic
and beautiful temples in Southeast Asia.
A typical Laos inter-city bus station. Nice, clean,
convenient, safe, etc.
A typical site at the Plain of Jars. Hundreds of huge stone jars,
approximately 2000 years old. No one knows exactly who built
them or why.
Hwa Phra Kaew. It housed the Emerald Budda from 1564 until
1779 when a Thai army sacked Vientiane and took it to Bangkok,
where it still sits. Apparently many Laotians have still not
gotten over this.
Patuxai, a huge concrete edifice supposedly made by the old
royal government with cement that the the Americans had
provided for a new airport runway. Apparently it is based on
some other gate in Paris or somewhere.
There is a noodle shop in the center of the arch. Awesome.
And a T-Shirt stand halfway up the stairs. Super awesome.
The authorities are building a huge park/flood barrier along the
Mekong. Its actually pretty nice, lots of young Laotians and
families come out to walk along the river on weekends.
The mighty Mekong, Thailand on the right side. The first big
hotel in town is on the left.
The main parade ground. I decided to walk all the way across it
in the afternoon sun, big mistake. The National Assembly
building is on the right.
Vientiane's first big mall, under construction. Things will
never be the same?

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

In Search of Public Policy

(H/T: Sez)

So thats it, my Masters Degree is done. Right after my last exam I ran into some of my classmates in the lobby. "We did it, we finished a Graduate Degree in Public Policy!" Followed by giggles. Followed by silence.

I've learned a lot over the last two years, but I have to say I'm still not entirely sure what to tell people when they ask me what I'm studying. I usually try and explain Public Policy as the study of how to make government more efficient. That gets lots of laughs, especially back home in the US (which is ironically the birthplace of Public Policy studies and home to its most hallowed institute, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government).

Our Dean likes to say that one of the world's biggest shortages is that of good governance. This is absolutely true, but I feel like during my time in school I haven't spent enough time learning how to close that gap. My impression of what I have been taught is that in order to institute change all you need to do is make a rational argument with plenty of quantitative evidence backing you up. This is obviously not true in the majority of cases. People fear change and will resist it even when it is completely illogical (to you at least). Instead, you need to learn how to find "policy windows," or if necessary make them yourself, before you can change existing paradigms. That requires learning how to frame your arguments, speak the right language, build up a constituency, and, well, be shrewd. In my opinion these components have been almost completely absent from my education (the exception might be the class taught by this guy). I understand there is only so much you can put in a two year program, but I'm still a little disappointed.

The 22 minutes worth of youtube videos posted below are a documentary put together by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on the refurbishment of the Phnom Penh water system after the devastating Cambodian civil war. I love this video because it illustrates so well the critical importance of implementation. At one point in the video the agency director Ek Sonn Chan tells people that if they want water, "you have to pay!" I wish more politicians in rich countries had the guts to tell their constituents the same thing, but thats a post for another day.

Over the past two years I feel like I've spent 80% of my time on theory, 10% on planning, and 10% on implementation. I agree with one of my profs when he says "nothing is more important than a good theory," but I still feel that in the real world success is something like 20% theory, 20% planning, and 60% implementation. There are no shortage of books on public policy theory and beautiful master plans sitting around the government offices of the world, but there are very few Ek Soon Chans. 

Feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

Monday, 2 May 2011

OBL and the GWOT

Today was supposed to be a quiet study day before my final exam of the year on Tuesday morning. But I knew as soon as I sat down in the study room and booted up Chrome that I was going to get very little studying done today. Almost everyone on the planet knows what happened to Osama Bin Laden (OBL) today, so I'm not going to belabor you with the details.

Almost immediately, one of my friends posted this quote on my facebook wall:

‎"I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure" - Mark Twain

I replayed this quote through my head about 50 times today, so it obviously hit home. I have to confess that I spent the first hour after hearing news just reading updates and trying to come to grips with the knot in my stomach. Basically, I had been thinking about this day for so long that I didn't know how to react. Should I be happy? Somber? In the end I settled on an attempt to remain partial and analytical. Its stuff like this that hammers home how much of a Myers-Briggs INTP I actually am. 

Which brings us to the question on everybody's mind, what does Osama's death actually mean? Is this the actual end of the Global War on Terror? Will America be packing up and departing Afghanistan and the region for good? Or is this like the capture of Saddam Hussein, a feel good moment that has little long term impact. A lot of people who are much smarter than me have already commented on this, but this wouldn't be a blog if I wasn't willing to throw out my two cents worth.

In the now infamous words of Joe Biden, I think this really is "A Big F%&*ing Deal." Not because Osama was that important to Al Qaeda or global terrorism. Most evidence seems to suggest that both he and his organization are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Fareed Zakaria has written about Al Qaeda's diminishing importance extensively. The important thing about what happened today is the fact that the American public got the win it needed to move on with its life. I have to admit I was a little bit disturbed, if not at all surprised, by the television shots of Americans publicly celebrating the news outside the White House and in Times Square. But if this is what we need to bring some closure to the gaping wound that has gnawed at us since September 2001, then so be it.

In retrospect, the entire idea of a Global War On Terror (GWOT) was probably a mistake. As Francis Fukuyama once observed, declaring a war on terror is like declaring a war on submarines. You can declare war on countries, groups, or individuals, but you can't declare war on an entire concept. The US has spent something $1.6 trillion and lost over 7211 uniformed personnel. No one knows how many people have died in Iraq, but the estimate is around 150,000. Tens of thousands of civilians and local security forces have also died in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a score of other countries. I don't think for a second that all of this was preventable. There was never going to be a negotiated settlement with Al Qaeda and its affiliates. The Iraq invasion was almost certainly a mistake, but I don't see how the US had any choice about intervening in Afghanistan. Of course many would argue that hindsight is 20/20, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make an all out effort to learn from our mistakes.

While all of the focus has been on Iraq and Afghanistan, much too little attention has been paid to the success stories. There are many, but my favorite is Indonesia. After the Bali bombings in 2002 there was a very real concern that Al Qaeda off shoots like Jemaah Islamiyah would unleash a campaign of violence across the archipelago. While there have been several more bombings, most recently in Jakarta in July 2009, JI is now pretty much a non-entity. This didn't happen because the US sent in SEAL teams to whack the bad guys like they just did in Abbottabad. The work was done by Indonesian police and military forces (as well as a civil society which decided that the goals of JI were not in their interest and took a courageous stand against them). Many civilians and security forces died in the effort and we should never forget their sacrifice. The US did assist in providing information, training, and equipment, but went out of its way to stay in the shadows.

I like the Indonesian case study because I think it represents the way that the US should handle the way forward. Its lessons obviously don't translate perfectly into a place like Afghanistan where the local government has a fraction of the capacity, but its still important to think about. One of my all time favorite sayings is from T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame): 

"Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly."

I liked this quote so much that I hung it above my door when I worked in Riyadh in order to constantly remind myself of my role. I think its safe to say that Americans have a tendency to go "all in" when they get involved in something. I think the last decade has hopefully made many of us realize the importance of letting others do things, even if they are done imperfectly. And hopefully now that Americans have the victory they have waited so long for, there will be an acceptance of the need to begin scaling back direct involvement in Afghanistan and other similar locals.

But we'll have to wait and see. As they say, International Relations is the novel that never ends.